The Obedience of Athanasius

This essay is written in response to the many times St. Athanasius of Alexandria is invoked in support of clerics who are manifestly disobedient to their superiors. “All those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” says St. Paul (2 Tim. 3:12). The Church is composed of fallible, sinful men, and it is always possible that a righteous person who desires only the will of God and good of the Church will end up being persecuted by ecclesiastical or secular authority. This is a given fact of Christian life; the real question is how is a Christian to respond to these trials? Specifically, how is a cleric to respond when unjustly persecuted by those who are his ecclesiastical superiors? The tradition of the Church is that the virtue of obedience must govern all of one’s actions in regard to one’s superiors; not to say that obedience is totally blind or binding when there is question of sin, but it is generally admitted that, short of sin, a cleric is bound to obey his superiors in all matters pertaining to his office, even those orders he may disagree with or find unjust. This obligation is even stricter for those under religious obedience.

It often happens, however, that an unjustly persecuted priest or cleric decides to “fight back.” Of course, it is always licit to protest one’s innocence and work within the system to clear one’s name. But sometimes a cleric will decide to exit the system altogether by ignoring ecclesiastical censures, removing himself from episcopal obedience, or—what’s worse—continuing to profess obedience while flaunting it in practice by suggesting that every order one disagrees with is invalid for this and that reason. We are not talking about full-blown schism here; there are many subtle ways one can remove oneself from obedience short of schism if one is crafty and willful enough.

Unjust Ecclesiastical Censures and the External Forum

What is one to do when faced with an unjust ecclesiastical censure, such as an excommunication or other penalty?

The traditional teaching of the Church is twofold: first, a Catholic is always bound to observe the censures of the Church in the external forum, even if they are unjust. This means that a cleric who is under a censure—say, excommunicated or has his faculties suspended—is bound to observe this censure, even if he believes the censure is unjust. This compulsion of obedience extends only to the external forum; that is, the cleric who believes himself wrongly excommunicated may continue to personally believe the excommunication unjust and consider himself still in full communion in God’s eyes. However, he is still bound to observe the external restrictions imposed on him by the censure, both for the sake of obedience and for the maintenance of ecclesiastical discipline. Barring an emergency, he may not simply ignore or disobey the censure because he personally believes it is unjust or erroneous.

The second aspect of the Church’s traditional teaching is that, while a censured cleric is always bound to observe the censure in the external forum, he may use every legal means at his disposal to protest an unjust censure. This is one reason why canon law exists: to provide a sort of legal framework for the Church to function, delineating the rights and responsibilities of the varied members of the Body of Christ. Thus, though a cleric is bound to obey an ecclesiastical censure in the external forum, he may appeal to the appropriate ecclesiastical body or to the Bishop of Rome. He may go through all the channels established by the Church to defend his case and prove his innocence. No cleric is compelled to simply take unjust abuse without some means of redress.

However, while the appeal process is going on, a cleric must continue to observe the censure until the competent authority decides otherwise. A priest who has lost faculties to say Mass and hear confessions may appeal the judgment if he personally believes it to be unjust, but until and unless he receives an affirmative judgment from the competent authority, he is bound to refrain from exercising his faculties. Even if his censure were unjust, he may not simply ignore it because he believes it to be so, even if there is good reason to think the judgment may be overturned in the future. One may not appeal to a hypothetical future vindication to justify disobedience in the present.

Thus, as a rule, one must always obey an ecclesiastical censure in the external forum. This is necessary for the disciplinary powers of the Church to retain their potency. If every person under an ecclesiastical censure were free to disregard it if they personally considered it unjust, Church discipline would be entirely subjectivized and the censures would lose their power, since “Every way of a man seemeth right to himself” and “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Prov. 21:2, Jer. 17:9). A man may not stand as a judge in his own case, and no man is free from the obligation of obeying and ecclesiastical censure, even an unjust one. To do otherwise is to rebel against the disciplinary authority of the Church, save in cases of emergency—which has traditionally been interpreted to mean imminent death.

St. Athanasius - Saints & Angels - Catholic Online
St. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373)

The Case of St. Athanasius of Alexandria

When contemporary cases of clerical obedience are brought up, our writings affirming the traditional view have frequently been met with sneering comments invoking St. Athanasius. “Thank God Athanasius did not act that way.” “So I suppose you think Athanasius was wrong in his conduct during the Arian controversy?” These are the sorts of comments that exhortations to obedience are frequently met with, as if Athanasius provided the historical justification for disobedience whenever a cleric subjectively thinks such disobedience is justified.

The life of Athanasius, however, provides no such justification; in fact, Athanasius perfectly exemplified the two-fold teaching we have elaborated above: that while one can use every legal means within his means to protest an unjust censure, unless and until it is overturned he is bound to observe it in the external forum.

In order to understand the facts of St. Athanasius’ case, it is necessary to examine the details of his various troubles. We will attempt to keep this as brief as possible, but as Athanasius was exiled five different times under varying circumstances, a certain amount of digression is necessary. As we go, please note the specific circumstances behind each of Athanasius’ exiles and the manner in which he responded. We will summarize the pertinent points afterward.

The Five Exiles of St. Athanasius

The first hostility of certain persons in the ecclesiastical and imperial establishment came from the saint’s fierce opposition to Arius during the controversies surrounding the First Council of Nicaea, at which time he was a deacon assisting his bishop Alexander of Alexandria as a theological adviser at the great council. Despite his youth, his impassioned and thoroughly orthodox opposition to Arianism earned him the animus of the Arian party— as well as the signature which the deacon affixed to an encyclical letter of his bishop condemning the teaching of Arius. Thus, when Athanasius ascended to the See of Alexandria only months after the close of Nicaea, he was already a well-known opponent of the Arians, who no doubt were seeking an opportunity of retribution. The leader of the Arian faction of Alexandria was one named Meletius, bishop of Lycopolis in Egypt.

But so long as the orthodox Emperor Constantine was on the throne, Athanasius reigned in peace. Things began to change after 330 when Constantine began to favor the Arian party, going so far as to recall Arius from exile and strongly compel Athanasius to reconcile the remaining Arians adhering to Meletius. Athanasius opposed this, as he knew the Meletians had not abandoned their heresy. This refusal would lead to the beginning of Athanasius’ troubles, as Meletius would conspire with Eusebius of Nicopolis, the foremost Arian of the Church, to harm the Bishop of Alexandria.

The First Exile

St. Athanasius’ first exile from 335-337 was occasioned by complaints lodged against him by the Arian party of Meletius. A synod was convened in Tyre under the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia, the foremost proponent of Arianism in the east. The charges were various: that Athanasius was of insufficient age when he was consecrated, that he had attempted to levy linen taxes on his diocese, that he secretly practiced magic, that he had profaned the Sacred Mysteries, and even that he had murdered somebody.

Seeing the absurd nature of the charges, Athanasius refused to even participate in the proceedings and was condemned in absentia. Though he refused to participate, once condemned he appealed the synod’s ruling to the Emperor Constantine, who by this time was old and in ill health. Athanasius dramatically presented himself before the emperor while Constantine was returning from a hunt to vindicate himself and ask for a fair trial. The Arian faction, however, prevailed upon Constantine and Athanasius was condemned on the flimsy charge of interfering with grain shipments to Egypt. He was sent into exile in Triers.

It is important to note that Athanasius was exiled and disgraced, but not excommunicated. Furthermore, his exile was imposed by the imperial court, not the Church. He was neither excommunicated nor deprived of faculties. He was received with joy by St. Maximinus of Trier and other orthodox exiles and celebrated the sacred mysteries in good standing with these men of faith.

The Second Exile

Athanasius remained in Trier until the death of Constantine in 336, after which the new Emperor Constantius II recalled him to take up his See at Alexandria. He was reinstalled at Bishop of Alexandria with much rejoicing.

His happiness was short lived, however, for the new emperor was a stout Arian and the faction of Eusebius of Nicomedia only grew in influence under the new regime. The old charges against Athanasius were renewed, with an added charge that he had ignored the decisions of a legitimately convened synod and taken up his See without episcopal permission.  This is the one and only time Athanasius was ever charged with disobedience to a legitimate ecclesiastical authority.

To this it could be argued that Athanasius went into exile because he had been condemned by an imperial order, not because of a legitimate condemnation from any ecclesiastical superior; the sham-synod that had condemned him at Tyre had been overseen by a Count of the imperial entourage who forbid any speech favorable to Athanasius and ensured that the bishop was condemned (Apol, I.14). Athanasius’ decree of exile had been given by an imperial order, not ecclesiastical. Likewise, Athanasius returned home as a result of an imperial order.

Nevertheless, the Arians were not interested in the truth of the charges. Emperor Constantius II pronounced an edict of banishment against Athanasius in 338. But this was not without protest; in 340 a synod of one hundred bishops met at Alexandria and proclaimed Athanasius innocent of the charges brought against him. Even while these events were unfolding, they were highly controversial. Athanasius always enjoyed considerable support from the orthodox party in Egypt and abroad. The common view of Athanasius contra mundum is true only as a hyperbole, in the sense that Athanasius led the orthodox resistance in speaking truth to power during the reign of a particularly corrupt and heretical emperor. But Athanasius was never entirely on his own, nor did he alone save the Church from Arianism.

At any rate, Athanasius obeyed the imperial decree of exile and left his See willingly, though as before, he sought a legitimate means of appeal. In his first exile he had appealed to Constantine; an imperial appeal to an Arian ruler was out of the question this time, so Athanasius went to Rome to appeal his case to the Pope.

Pope Julius received Athanasius joyfully and summoned a special synod to examine the details of his case. In 341 the synod issued a declaration to the whole Christian world that Athanasius was innocent of all the charges laid against him. Pope Julius composed a letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, invoking his authority “in order that a just judgment might be given in the presence of all parties” (Apol. I, 23). But the Arians refused to participate in the synod and Julius overturned the condemnation of Tyre, declaring that Athanasius was not proven guilty of any crime and that the whole proceeding of “suspicious appearance” because Athanasius was not present to defend himself; such procedures hold “no weight”, according to Julius (Apol. I,23).

Thus, canonically Athanasius was formally exonerated when the synod and letter of Julius overturned the sham proceedings at Tyre. The pope himself had declared him innocent and overturned all charges against him.

Emperor Constantius II

But Athanasius could not return home, for he was still under exile by decree of Constantius II. Therefore he used his time to travel west to meet the famous Hosius of Cordoba, the pope’s representative at the Council of Nicaea and champion of orthodoxy in Spain. Pope Julius asked Hosius to convene another second synod in Sardica to examine the case of Athanasius and again his innocence was affirmed. Two letters were prepared stating the judgment of the bishops of the west. It should be noted other authorities suggest this second synod was convened at the behest of the emperor, not the pope; either way, the bishops again exonerated Athanasius of any wrongdoing and the exiled bishop celebrated Easter in 345 in exile in Aquileia in full communion with the pope and the Church and was received with great joy by the bishop there.

Angered at his reception in the West, Emperor Constantius began persecuting the supporters of Athanasius in the East and decreed that Athanasius should be put to death if he tried to regain his See without permission. But by 345 things were uncertain for Constantius. His brother Constans, co-emperor in the West, was threatening war against him. Constans strongly supported Athanasius and orthodoxy. Constantius, seeing common ground on which he could appease his brother, gave Athanasius a favorable hearing and granted him permission to return to his See in October of 345. In this, Constantius was not sincerely repentant of his unjust decree but merely sought an occasion to make a gesture of goodwill towards his brother Constans.

The Third Exile

Athanasius returned home, but his peace lasted only a short time. In 350 his imperial supporter Constans died, leaving the Arian Constantius II sole emperor. Pope Julius died soon after and was replaced by Pope Liberius. Hosius of Cordoba was in exile. Athanasius’ main political and ecclesiastical supporters were gone and Constantius II was more powerful than ever. The party of Eusebius of Nicomedia again began scheming against Athanasius. It is in this third exile that things really get sticky, as we come to the famous waffling of Pope Liberius.

Athanasius must have suspected what was coming. He had already been condemned by the sham synod of Tyre, but Pope Julius had overturned this judgment. What Constantius craved was that Athanasius should be condemned by a western synod, one signed off on by the pope himself. This way the judgment would be without appeal. A council was soon summoned at Arles presided over the bishop of Capua. Emperor Constantius II threatened the bishops if they did not condemn Athanasius. Terrified at Constantius’ threats, the Synod of Arles declared Athanasius guilty.

All that was necessary was for the pope to ratify the condemnation of the synod. The pope at the time was Liberius. Whatever his later faults, we may applaud the pope in that Liberius refused to ratify this judgment. Pope Liberius opined that the decision of Arles was invalid as it was made under duress and asked Constantius for another synod where the bishops might decide freely. Note that, again, we see the pope invalidating the judgment of a lower synod against Athanasius.

Constantius agreed to Liberius’ request and a second synod was held at Milan in 355. Milan proved to be no better than Arles, however; in fact, it was even more coercive as Constantius ordered the discussion to take place in his presence at the imperial palace in Milan and threatened the bishops with death or exile if they did not ratify an Arian formula of faith and condemn Athanasius. The western bishops who had exonerated Athanasius ten years earlier this time were cowed by Constantius’ threats and condemned Athanasius. Only one bishop and the papal legates protested. The synod found Athanasius guilty of the same old accusations. Again Athanasius was not present to answer his accusers.

It is notable, however, that again Pope Liberius refused to ratify the decision of this synod because of the violence to which the bishops were subjected. Constantius II had grown tired of the pope’s resistance to his schemes. Thus Pope Liberius, the great defender of Athanasius, was sent into exile by Constantius II. Constantius first tried to induce the pope to join his side, but bribes to entice the pope to adopt the Arian position failed. Constantius summoned Liberius to Milan to confront him face to face. There the pope told him, among other things, that Athanasius had been exonerated at the Council of Sardica and that the pope did not regard any of his condemnations as canonically valid. As far as Liberius was concerned, the emperor had exiled an innocent man.

Liberius was threatened by Constantius and the pope’s priest and deacon were scourged and tortured. Then Liberius himself was maltreated by the emperor’s henchmen; the degree of his torture is not known, but eventually, weakened by the severity of his treatment, Pope Liberius signed a condemnation of Athanasius that was presented to him by the Emperor. This was the one and only condemnation of Athanasius by a legitimate ecclesiastical authority, but of course granted that it was done without hearing, in the absence of Athanasius, and under torture and compulsion, its legal and moral weight was and is completely nugatory. No churchman then or since took this condemnation seriously. It was elicited under torture and backed up only by imperial arms.

None of this mattered to the Arian emperor. In February, 356 Athanasius was arrested in the middle of divine services, forcibly ejected from Alexandria and again sent into exile. Now, given what we have noted above about the completely illicit nature of Liberius’ condemnation, how did Athanasius respond to it? He obeyed, removing himself from Alexandria and from active ministry. He spent the next six years of exile in the Egyptian desert, hiding with the monks of the region and devoting himself to writing and the monastic lifestyle. It was here that he composed some of his best works, including his Letter to the Monks and Apology to Constantius. His ecclesiastical and imperial avenues of redress being closed, the saintly bishop simply made the best of his exile pursuing holiness and waiting for the will of God to reveal itself.

The Fourth Exile

Things began to change with the death of Constantius II in 361. The Arian front had also cracked, having broken into various factions (Arians vs. Semi-Arians) which weakened their resolve against the orthodox. The new emperor, the pagan Julian the Apostate, recalled all those bishops exiled by Constantius. Athanasius subsequently returned to his See in 362. Julian, however, was jealous of Athanasius and decreed that Athanasius was not included in the imperial decree of clemency and again exiled him. Athanasius again left Alexandria, but his absence was brief, for Julian died in battle ten months later in 363.

The Fifth Exile

Athanasius waited for a recall of exiles under the short-lived orthodox emperor Jovian to return to his See, but was exiled again in 364 when the new Arian Emperor Valens decreed banishment to all bishops who had been banished by Constantius. The population of Alexandria bitterly protested this fifth exile, but Athanasius again obeyed the decree and withdrew a short distance from the city, taking up residence in the tomb of his father. The Emperor Valens had not anticipated the great outcry that Athanasius’ exile occasioned among the people of Alexandria and restored Athanasius to his See in January, 366. Though Valens continued to reign for another twelve years until his violent death at the Battle of Adrianople, Athanasius and the Nicene orthodox were left in peace, largely due to the policies of Valens’ co-emperor and elder brother Valentinian, who favored Nicene orthodoxy.

This was the end of Athanasius’ trials. From 366 until his death in 373 he was left alone and allowed to exercise his ministry in peace, writing, praying and trying to repair the damage caused in the local church by the Arian heresy. 

Athanasius Was Never Disobedient

The story is long and convoluted in many respects, but several points should be evident. In the first place, though condemned unjustly on several occasions, Athanasius was always obedient to decrees both imperial and ecclesiastical. Let us relate Athanasius’ behavior throughout his ordeals.

Athanasius’ Obedience to Civil Authority

Athanasius was exiled five times, condemned by three ecclesiastical synods, and once by the pope. Though the precise relationship between Church and State, between sacerdotium and regnum was only beginning to be worked out, according to the precedents of the time it was the role of the Roman Emperor to enforce ecclesiastical decrees. A synod or council might anathematize or condemn, but it fell to the secular arm to impose the decree of banishment or imprisonment for a condemned cleric. Though the Roman Emperors were not Athanasius’ immediate superiors, they were not acting outside of accepted convention in proclaiming decrees of banishment. Athanasius always complied with these decrees, even though he knew they were unjust. He sometimes appealed the decrees, as he did when he appealed to Pope Julius against the decree of Constantius II. But regardless of his personal belief about the validity of these decrees, Athanasius always obeyed them in the external forum. When Constantius exiled him, he did not continue to operate from his See, did not debate the extent of the emperor’s authority in ecclesiastical matters, did not obstinately refuse to acknowledge the sentence against him, did not continue to minister as if nothing had happen. Rather, he abdicated his See as commanded and went into exile. He appealed his case to the pope, but in the interim continued to observe the sentence against him until the imperial authority reversed its decree. Athanasius thus always obeyed in these matters. 

Athanasius’ Obedience to Ecclesiastical Authority

More pertinent to our discussion is Athanasius’ obedience to ecclesiastical authority. Athanasius was condemned by three synods and exonerated at two. He was condemned at Tyre, Arles and  Milan. Each of these were regional synods either dominated by the Arian party (Tyre) or else manipulated by imperial force to a predetermined outcome (Arles and Milan); in the case of Milan, Constantius II personally threatened exile or death to bishops who defied his wishes. Athanasius was never present at any of these synods. The condemnation at Tyre occasioned his first exile, while those at Arles and Milan preceded the third exile. In each case, though Athanasius clearly knew the procedures were flawed, the outcomes predetermined, and the evidence fabricated, he did not disobey the imperial decrees of banishment that flowed from them.

This is not to suggest Athanasius did not fight or protest; Athanasius is remembered for his vigorous defense of his innocence, and his famous Apology Against the Arians completely demolishes the charges against him and ruthlessly exposes the sham procedures observed in these synods. Since each ecclesiastical condemnation was followed by an imperial decree of banishment, it is difficult to hypothesize how Athanasius would have responded had his condemnations been merely ecclesiastical without the secular arm to back them up. But while alternative history makes for interesting speculation, we must work with what we have. While Athanasius clearly disagreed with the legitimacy of what was done to him, he observed the decrees of the synods at least externally. This is proven by the following point. 

The Council of Nicea and the Arian Controversy

Athanasius Worked Within the System

How do we know that Athanasius observed, at least externally, the ecclesiastical decrees against him? Because when he suffered their unjust penalties he followed the proper procedural protocol in appealing them. In the case of his condemnation at Tyre, he made an appeal to Emperor Constantine; this was fitting, inasmuch as imperial officials were present at Tyre to ensure Athanasius’ condemnation. Furthermore, since Athanasius was bishop of a patriarchal See, there was no one other than the pope to whom he could appeal. After the emperors themselves condemned him, in the person of Constantius II, Athanasius followed proper ecclesiastical protocol in appealing to the bishop of Rome. Pope Julius recognized as much when he stated that he wished to settle the case with a just judgment between the two parties. When even the pope turned against Athanasius (at least putatively) in the case of Liberius, Athanasius had no one left to appeal to, he simply waited out his time of banishment.

What does it mean to “work within the system”? When Athanasius faced penalties unjustly, he could have simply remained in Alexandria, obstinately continuing in his ministry and claiming that the condemnations against him were unjust and lacked any binding force. He could have fomented a schism between himself and the bishops appointed to replace him. He could have reacted against a corrupt ecclesiastical system that had failed to do him justice and simply remained stationary, essentially daring the emperor or the ecclesiastical authorities to do anything about it. When he heard about Liberius’ excommunication, he could have said Rome was taken over by Arians and called the pope and antichrist. In essence, he could have bucked the whole system. But he did not, and while it is certainly important to emphasize that Athanasius vigorously fought the corruption and heresy of his day, it must equally be stressed that he always did so within the system. He never tried to uphold his own innocence or position at the expense of the system or ecclesiastical discipline.

St. Athanasius Was Never Legitimately Condemned by Any Ecclesiastical Authority

It is often pointed out that Athanasius was condemned and continued to minister in spite of his condemnations. It must be noted, however, than not one of these condemnations was canonically valid. Pope Julius reversed the judgment and Tyre and declared its procedures and determination invalid; Liberius did the same for the synod of Arles as well as the proceedings at Milan, the latter for which he was tortured and exiled. This still leaves the special case of Liberius’ excommunication of Athanasius, which we shall address shortly; but it is important to note that not one of the synodal condemnations of Athanasius was considered valid. All were overturned by the popes, and some (such as the proceedings at Tyre), were protested by over 100 bishops who objected to the unjust proceedings. 

The Pope Exonerated Athanasius

It must be remembered that far from being in antagonism with the pope, Athanasius was exonerated by both Pope Julius and Pope Liberius. Julius vindicated him at a synod in Rome and Sardica, and wrote a letter to Eusebius proclaiming Athanasius’ complete innocence and the invalidity of the synod of Tyre. However, Liberius, too, exonerated Athanasius. Some often portray Liberius as a quasi-Arian who was a willing accomplice in the persecution of Athanasius. In fact, Athanasius had very high regard for Pope Liberius and thought him perfectly orthodox. In his History of the Arians, Athanasius says, “[Liberius] was an orthodox man and hated the Arian heresy, and earnestly endeavoured to persuade all persons to renounce and withdraw from it (History of the Arians, Part V, 35). 

Liberius, too, knew Athanasius was innocent of any wrongdoing and any heresy. In his response to one of the emperor’s lackeys, Liberius maintains his opinion that Athanasius is innocent and that he refuses to investigate any charges of misconduct:

[Liberius said:] “How is it possible for me to do this against Athanasius? How can we condemn a man, whom not one Council only, but a second assembled from all parts of the world, has fairly acquitted, and whom the Chuch of the Romans dismissed in peace? Who will approve of our conduct, if we reject in his absence one, whose presence among us we gladly welcomed, and admitted him to our communion? This is no Ecclesiastical Canon; nor have we had transmitted to us any such tradition from the Fathers, who in their turn received from the great and blessed Apostle Peter. But if the Emperor is really concerned for the peace of the Church, if he requires our letters respecting Athanasius to be reversed, let their proceedings both against him and against all the others be reversed also; and then let an Ecclesiastical Council be called at a distance  from the Court, at which the Emperor shall not be present, nor any Count be admitted, nor  magistrate to threaten us, but where only the fear of God and the Apostolic rule shall prevail; that so in the first place, the faith  of the Church may be secure, as the Fathers defined it in the Council of Nicæa, and the supporters of the Arian doctrines may be cast out, and their heresy anathematized. And then after that, an enquiry being made into the charges brought against Athanasius, and any other besides, as well as into  those things of which the other party is accused, let the culprits be cast out, and the innocent receive encouragement and support. For it is impossible that they who maintain an impious creed can be admitted as members of a Council: nor is it fit that  an enquiry into matters of conduct should precede the enquiry concerning the faith” (ibid, 36). 

In short, both Athanasius and Liberius had high regard for one another and were assured of each others’ orthodoxy. It was thus through compulsion and torture that Liberius finally gave in and condemned Athanasius. The interesting thing is that Athanasius himself exonerates and defends Liberius for his action. Knowing as he did that Liberius was a man of orthodoxy who believed in Athanasius’ innocence, Athanasius realized the condemnation issued by the pope was due entirely to compulsion and defends the pope’s action:

“But Liberius after he had been in banishment two years gave way, and from fear of threatened death subscribed. Yet even this only shows their violent conduct, and the hatred of Liberius against the heresy, and his support of Athanasius, so long as he was suffered to exercise a free choice. For that which men are forced by torture to do contrary to their first judgment,  ought not to be considered the willing deed of those who are in fear, but rather of their tormentors. They however attempted everything in support of their heresy, while the people in every Church, preserving the faith which they had learned, waited for the return of their teachers, and condemned the Antichristian heresy, and all avoid it, as they would a serpent” (History of the Arians, Part V, 41)

Athanasius could have balked and called the excommunication invalid; he could have called the pope an antichrist in sermons and writings and continued his ministry in spite of it. But in fact he did not; rather, by virtue of the great love he had for Liberius and the knowledge of his torture, he defended the man. This leads into another popular myth about Athanasius: that he “ignored” the pope’s excommunication, something often repeated. Sometimes it is even asserted that Athanasius ordained other bishops and endowed them with jurisdiction during his papal excommunication.

This latter point is without merit. None of the lives of Athanasius mention him ordaining bishops in his exile in Egypt, nor does Athanasius’s own writings suggest this. The great Church historian Baronius makes no mention of it and the great Benedictine hagiographers the Bollandists also do not say that Athanasius made any ordinations while excommunicated by Liberius. No other traditional Church historians make this claim. As far as I can tell, this claim originates with Michael Davies and a misunderstanding between Athanasius’ exiles by the Roman government and his period of excommunication under Liberius. But it is fairly certain that Athanasius never ordained bishops during his period of excommunication.

As to whether Athanasius “ignored” the pope’s excommunication, this is a difficult claim to sustain, since when Athanasius heard Liberius had condemned him he withdrew from his See into a quiet exile in the Thebaid in Egypt. We have mentioned that he did not ordain bishops. He continued to write and against the Arians, but this hardly constitutes “ignoring” the pope since Liberius never commanded him to cease writing. And, as we have noted, Liberius was not an Arian and personally supported Athanasius. Whatever Athanasius did against the Arians in exile, he had no doubt that Liberius would have approved of it since he knew the pope to be a man who hated the Arian heresy.

The only way Athanasius could have “ignored” Liberius’ excommunication would be if he had continued to exercise his jurisdiction as Patriarch of Alexandria in spite of the condemnation.  But as the secular authorities physically removed him, this would have hardly been possible.

Athanasius Never Lost Faculties

It might be objected that Athanasius disobeyed the pope by continuing to offer Mass during the period of his excommunication, since one who is excommunicated loses his jurisdiction and faculties. This objection is facile; for one thing, Athanasius left no record of what he did on a daily basis while in exile. We know he stayed with the monks of the Thebaid, we know he spent time writing and praying, and we know that he had to hide at times to avoid assassins sent to destroy him. But we actually do not know whether Athanasius said Mass, although I have not read everything on this saint and admit I may be mistaken.

That being said, it is usually implied that Athanasius continued to say Mass during his six year sojourn in Egypt. But even if he did, the argument that he was disobedient to Liberius is errant for several reasons. For one thing, the document signed by Liberius was drafted by the partisans of Constantius II. Its purpose was simply to condemn Athanasius and give grounds for his deposition. It did not laicize Athanasius, or suspend him a divinis, or deprive him of his priestly function – it condemned him of certain criminal acts and excommunicated him, which was what Constantius II wanted for the purpose of securing an ecclesiastical rationale for his banishment.

It could be argued that a suspension of faculties is implied in an excommunication. It must be noted, however, that it is not always helpful or accurate to impose later canonical concepts back into eras in which they may not have existed in such detail. It is improbable that the Church in Athanasius’ time recognized any sort of implication, most likely because the distinction between faculties and ecclesiastical jurisdiction were not thoroughly worked out yet, and the act of a bishop taking possession of a metropolitan See with the formal assent of the Roman pontiff (the conferring of the pallium) did not yet exist. Bishops took possession of their See by virtue of their election to it, the consent of the Roman pontiff being implicit if he did not positively object. The right to say Mass and administer sacraments flowed from the indelible character of Holy Orders, and it was generally presumed that one who was legitimately ordained could always exercise these powers. When a cleric was excommunicated or deposed, the procedure at the time was not to forbid them from saying Mass, but to forbid other Christians from communing in the same Mass with them. When Arius, or Nestorius, or whomever was excommunicated, it was presumed that they would continue to say Mass. They would not have faculties revoked; rather, the faithful would be warned not to worship with them. 

In practice, this could be seen to have the same implications: a priest with no faculties celebrating the Mass offends God by his disobedience, just like a person who communes with an excommunicated heretic offends God by worshiping with heretics. But it should be observed that the reason the faithful were warned against communing with heretics was because they were heretics. Athanasius was never condemned as a heretic, even putatively. His condemnation had to do with false charges of illicit consecration, murder, sorcery, etc. Thus, there is no evidence that Athanasius had his faculties “revoked” and yet continued to exercise them anyway.

Finally, it should also be noted that the excommunication of Athanasius was never revoked. At the end of his exile and the death of Constantius, Athanasius was simply invited back to his See. As far as we know, the new pope never revoked the excommunication of Liberius. No synod was ever convened for formally exonerate Athanasius from the censure of Liberius. What rationale could there be for this? Perhaps it was never revoked because nobody thought this was a legitimate or binding excommunication to begin with, since it was elicited under torture by a man who was a known public defender of Athanasius. It was common understanding that the excommunication and the circumstances surrounding it were utter rubbish. The popes who followed Liberius knew it. Athanasius knew it. The Roman emperors knew it. The universal episcopate knew it.

That being the case, it is that much more impressive that Athanasius obeyed his ecclesiastical censure in the external forum since he and everyone else knew it to be a sham.



Athanasius of Alexandria was always obedient to ecclesiastical censures, even censures he knew were given in error or unjustly. When he was condemned, he always worked within the canonical system to appeal his case and observed the censures in the meantime, never ignoring or disdaining ecclesiastical discipline, for which he had such a high regard. Far from being a model of “justified disobedience”, St. Athanasius is a model of humble obedience – obedience of the sort that endures whatever misfortunes befall, waiting patiently for the will of God to reveal itself through circumstances.

Furthermore, we must always remember that while, in justice, a victim of unjust censures always as a right to speak up and defend himself, there is a higher way – the way of patiently suffering without complaint, in imitation of our Lord, who “opened not his mouth”, who “as a sheep before the shearers is dumb” (Isa. 53:7). This higher way, the path of imitation of our Lord, is the kind of response to unjust persecution that had made saints and has served as the vehicle through which the will of God is revealed.

This article does not make any of these points with reference to any specific person or group, but there are certainly applications that can be made.

Phillip Campbell, “The Obedience of Athanasius,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, October 11, 2015. Available online at: http:://